First-year Mizzou basketball coach Cuonzo Martin's new-look Tigers team will play 31 games before it comes to St. Louis for the SEC tournament in March.
By then we will have a much clearer picture of the team that has reinvigorated a fan base and recaptured a bit of the national spotlight that ceased after a combined record of 27-68 the past three seasons.
A quick history lesson for those who tuned out: The Tigers have not reached the NCAA Tournament since 2013. They have not made the round of 32 since 2010. They have not made it to the Sweet 16 since 2009. They have never been to a Final Four.
How much history can hometown star Michael Porter Jr. and his teammates make before the likely lottery pick chases his NBA dream?
After months of wondering, it's finally time to find out.
Today, I offer one man's opinion on the most intriguing nonconference games on the Tigers' schedule, starting with tonight's.
Iowa State @ Mizzou
The season tips off tonight in front of a sold-out Mizzou Arena crowd that will be electric with, what, exactly? I'd guess nervous energy. And if the Tigers start hot, the place will rock. First impressions aren't everything, but they do matter. Especially when this team's fate hinges on the performance of so many new players. How will the freshmen handle the spotlight?
Iowa State is in a rebuilding year. The Cyclones lost a ton of talent from last year's 24-win team. That said, the Cyclones have 20-plus wins in each of their past six seasons. They won't flinch. No time for nerves. This will be a fight.
Mizzou @ Utah
Larry Krystkowiak's team isn't expected to be world-beaters this season. Former top player Kyle Kuzma took off for the NBA draft and two other key contributors -- Devon Daniels and JoJo Zamora -- transferred out after the Utes were bounced from the NIT. The Utes were picked to finish seventh in the Pac 12.
Overlooking this one would be dangerous, though. Utah has a lot of experience, with forward David Collette, junior guard Sedrick Barefield and grad transfer Justin Bibbins expected to lead the team in production. It's the first true road test for a truly inexperienced Tigers team.
Mizzou vs. West Virginia
To be clear, this is a game I hope happens. But some things would have to fall into place first. The Tigers and the 11th-ranked Mountaineers are at the opposite ends of the bracket in late November's AdvoCare Invitational in Orlando. If both take care of business, they could meet in the event's championship.
In West Virginia, Mizzou would meet the most likely challenger to Kansas in the Big 12, a group known for its dogged, press-happy defense and hard-as-nails mentality. Bob Huggins brings back three starters from a squad that last season won 28 games and reached the Sweet 16. You never like playing West Virginia. You do grow from it.
Mizzou @ UCF
The Tigers could potentially play the University of Central Florida twice this year. While unlikely, there is a chance they first cross paths in the previously mentioned AdvoCare Invitational. But they will definitely meet on Nov. 30, for the away game on the Knights' home court. Expect a crowd for that one.
UCF is a team on the rise. Second-year coach Johnny Dawkins won 24 games and steered his team to the NIT's Final Four in his first season. The Knights were picked to finish third in the American Athletic Conference, a first for the program. (The previous best was 8th.) Point guard B.J. Taylor earned first-team all-conference preseason honors. Center Tacko Fall made the preseason second team. Oh, he's 7-foot-6! Sports Illustrated named the Knights as a team on the rise. CBS Sports predicted an NCAA tournament appearance. The more you read about UCF, the tougher this game looks.
Mizzou vs. Illinois
Braggin' Rights needs no explanation, other than the reminder that this has the makings of an especially memorable clash, considering the excitement surrounding both revived programs and the drama that was the recruitment of Tigers freshman forward and East St. Louis native Jeremiah Tilmon. If somehow you missed that, here's the history. And don't forget Edwardsville native Mark Smith is expected to be a big player for the Illini.
College basketball is back. And Mizzou basketball is back from the dead. Enjoy the games.
@Ben_Fred on Twitter
This article originally ran on stltoday.com.